Lithuania’s slim and trim market shared by legal players and counterfeiters

  • 2011-05-11
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

KLAIPEDA - Are you doing sit-ups like crazy, trying to work off the fat around your midsection as fast as possible, though the six-pack you saw in a glitzy fitness mag is still nowhere to be seen? Does your heart sink deeper every time when the fat rings squeeze on your belly? Are you fed up with the excruciating work-outs and the heart-jump-out cardio that apparently are not working for you? You cannot curb your food cravings, can you?

For overweight people, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the population in Lithuania, the emotional ups-and-downs while fighting the pot belly are quite common. After fruitless physical exertion, most try something more sinister – weight loss pills. However, if you ask for a quick-acting fat-shedding pill at a Lithuanian pharmacy, you will likely see the pharmacist shaking his head. “Now we do not sell any weight-loss pills under prescription, only dietary supplements. I can offer just appetite suppressants, or Magnesium dietary supplements. A year and a half ago, I could suggest trying Lindaxa, Reductil or other Sibutramine-laden weight loss pills under prescription. I had heard that these weight loss pills have been very effective, even to those who have lost hope of getting rid of fat. The sales of the drugs were very good, as I would have to order them several times a week. I am not aware of the reasons as to why the Sibutramine medicine was taken off the market. I can just tell that they were flying in my pharmacy,” Ingrida Stoliniene, a Klaipeda pharmacist, maintained to The Baltic Times.

Ramune Visockyte, press officer at Lithuania’s State Drug Control Service (LSDCS), informed The Baltic Times that Lindaxa and Reductil, the most effective weight-loss medicines of the era, were removed from the market, following a decision by Europe’s medicine supervisory institution, European Medicine Agency (EMA). “EMA has concluded that the medicines pose more  risks than benefits,” Visockyte said. In its Web site, EMA substantiates its decision, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) findings, which have exhibited some very adverse side effects of the pills, including a higher stroke risk for cardiovascular patients. In the U.S., Reductil is known as Merida.

A certified weight-loss specialist in Klaipeda, who preferred to speak to The Baltic Times without disclosing her name, said that the removal of the effective weight-loss medicine was “a blow to thousands of obese people, whom the medicine was really helping.” She said that, until recently, three medicines were usually administered for obese patients: Orlistat (Xenical), Rimonabant and Sibutramine-rich Reductil and Lindaxa. However, the latter two have been removed from the market due to their supposed adverse side-effects.

Sibutramine weight loss is a stimulant that acts on the central nervous system and has been a proven weight loss drug. As a central nervous system stimulant, Sibutramine weight loss treatment inhibits the reuptake of neurotransmitters in the brain. This leads to suppression of appetite and an increase in the sense of fullness.

“I am not in a position to argue the medical findings, but the bottom line is they have been helping many hopelessly obese patients. Unfortunately, today available obesity-fighting remedies are not that effective, or are ineffective. Therefore, many people, determined to wage a fight against obesity, go to Belarus or Kaliningrad and buy the banned drugs. I heard that a packet of Reductil costs 500 litas (145 euros) in the black market, three times more than the original price at pharmacies. The black drug market is booming in Lithuania, and weight-loss medicine of Chinese origin takes up a significant part of it. No doubt, most of them are much more precarious than Reductil or Lindaxa,” the dietician asserted.

Jurate, a Klaipeda resident, reverberates her reasoning, maintaining that the European Medicine Agency has over-exerted itself in prohibiting Sibutramine-rich medicine sales. “It seems to me that, for Lithuanian doctors, treating obesity is just about coaxing a patient into changing lifestyle, balancing nutrition and undertaking physical activities, which, I do not argue, is all good. However, I have the impression that our doctors shun addressing the problem medically, prescribing some serious weight-loss remedies. After Reductil was banned, no other as-effective weight-loss remedy appeared on the market. All other pills I have tried do nothing for me. Frustrated, and advised by a friend who is also suffering from obesity, I went to a local market one day and bought some Chinese weight-loss stuff - Lida. Its seller told me she had bought it in Sovetsk. Although I have heard many bad comments about Lida, as with all Chinese dietary products, it seems to be working on me. I have already shed five kilos since I started,” Jurate boasted to The Baltic Times.

Oh, yes, Chinese Lida has long been banned by the European Union, but obese people are determined to try out anything, let it be Martian bugs, let alone the Chinese stuff!
If you scour through the multiple Web sites offering weight-loss supplements, 90 percent of them sell illegal products – the same Chinese Lida, Lipra or other Asian offerings. While a sheer majority of consumers realize the possible threats of the illegal brands, women’s Web forums are overflowing with “incredible” stories by weight-loss champions. “I have lost six kilos in just two months. Nothing works better for me than Lida,” an Internet commentator, presenting herself as “a young mom,” brags.

“Chinese supplements [work] miraculously. I have tortured myself in numerous gyms, up to fainting, but the cursed fat did not go anywhere. Now I gulp down whatever I want, but I keep shedding the unnecessary kilos,” another public commentator, signed in as “desperation is gone,” said, praising the illegal items.

Apparently, the abundant number of sellers of obesity-fighting illegal medicines are thriving. Both in local markets and in the Internet’s vastness. “Chinese weight-loss products have been known as the best in the field for centuries. The European Union cracks down on them not because they pose some danger, but purely out of economic reasons, trying to outcompete Asian products, while introducing EU-promoted medicines and supplements. I hear only positive responses about the Chinese dietary and weight-loss means. So, which remedies are you interested in acquiring?” Kestutis, representing himself in a flashy Web site advertisement as a “reputed dietary and weight-regulating product seller in Kaunas,” cajoled to The Baltic Times’ correspondent, pretending to be a keen buyer.

Zenonas Stanevicius, deputy director of Lithuania’s State Food and Veterinary Administration, forewarns that information about all cases of illegal trade of food supplements, as well as weight-loss remedies, is being passed on to the Police Department. “Also, the State Tax Revenue Service is being informed about such cases as well,” Stanevicius added.
Ramunas Matonis, spokesman for the Department, informed The Baltic Times that 33,286 pieces of medicines, supplements, including weigh-loss remedies, were removed from the black market in 2010. “The Department does not single out in the data as to what part of the illegal trade weight-related supplements made up last year,” Matonis said. According to him, this year, 1,393 items of medicine have been removed from circulation. “Sixty Administrative Codex protocols have been written so far,” the Department representative added. In comparison, in 2009, 109 such administrative protocols were written for transgressors of the Codex, and 28,000 pieces of medicine were confiscated.

“For the population’s wellbeing, threats arise not as much from production and distribution of counterfeit medicines, as much as from the illegal circulating of medically-oriented supplements and drugs,” Matonis emphasized. He pointed out that demand for illegal medicines is being created by the “habits of certain population groups, especially by elderly and retired people, as well as the price difference among legally and illegally distributed medicines and supplements.” He asserts that drug smuggling and illegal trade usually is a part of larger smuggling activities.

A recent EU investigation revealed approximately 170 cases of medicine counterfeiting and illegal distribution in EU countries. Obviously, statistics are even more burdensome for new EU countries from Eastern Europe. The World Health Organization shows alarm that 10-15 percent of all pharmaceutical preparations are counterfeit. However, money-strapped Lithuanians do not heed the admonishments and seek cheaper medicine in the local market. Thus, on a busy Saturday, shady drug sellers, with offers from the Soviet headache pill Citramon, to Chinese weight supplements, and usually thronged by plentiful buyers, prosper.

While the elderly swamp local markets, youngsters browse the limitless Internet, searching for growth hormones, erectile dysfunction pills, sedatives, steroidal medicines, and, certainly, weight-loss remedies. “The sheer majority of Internet pharmacies are operating illegally. People do risk ordering medicines from them. When Internet pharmacies are legalized and certified, no one will then have to be afraid of their activities. However, we are still getting there. Those being advertised online currently are not safe,” says Narbutas, the Patients Fund director in Panevezys.

According to Lithuania’s State Drug Control Service, roughly 90 percent of all online drugs are counterfeit. Ramune Balnionyte, head of Seimos Vaistine’s (Family Pharmacy) marketing, says that the same name chain pharmacies sell different dietary supplements, helping to slim down. “We offer appetite suppressants, sweets suppressants, also supplements promoting fat dissolving in the cells, metabolism energizers and supplements limiting fat absorption,” Balnionyte said to The Baltic Times. She says that buyers mostly show much interest in discounted preparations and the supplements that are known in the market. “For example, for those that one has heard of somewhere, or friends have advised on,” the Seimos Vaistine marketing head admitted.

In terms of seasonality, she points to January. “I believe it is when, right after New Year, many figure-conscious women are determined to take on their New Year’s resolution to slim down a bit for the upcoming season. A good deal of women combine dietary supplements with a membership at the gym. Supplements are seen as a resource to achieve the results quicker and more effectively,” Balnionyte noted.

Another wave of would-be slim beauties, she says, comes in the spring. Traditionally, women are keener on dietary supplements than men. “Some customers inquire about dietary supplements that are not registered in Lithuania. We sell only approved nutritional and dietary supplements,” Balnionyte emphasized.

Asta Keibiene, head of JSC Nemuno Vaistine (Neman Pharmacy) communication projects, says that the JSC-run Camelia pharmacies sell 15 dietary supplement brands for slimming down. “Body cleansers, metabolism enhancers and appetite suppressants are the most popular. Price-wise, products, priced from 30 to 40 litas, are the most buyable,” Keibiene admitted. She emphasized that the slim and trim supplement market is introducing new slimming supplements that induce energy. “These kinds of preparations are still emerging in the market; however, they are becoming more and more popular,” the Nemuno Vaistine representative said. She notes that 95 percent of buyers are women. “Lithuanian men are very conservative. They do not use slimming supplements. Lithuanian men get anxious about their weight only when some health issues appear,” Keibiene inferred.